Before he got his recording contract, Bradley Walker had already performed on the Grand Ole Opry, appeared on national television and sung at some of America’s leading bluegrass festivals. One listen to Highway of Dreams, his stunning Rounder Records debut, explains why: Bradley Walker is simply one of the greatest young country singers alive. He belongs to a tradition that includes such outstanding stylists as Vern Gosdin, Merle Haggard, Mel Street, Gene Watson, George Jones, Lefty Frizzell, and Keith Whitley, all of whom he cites as influences. “It’s not like I’m on any kind of campaign to bring back traditional country music,” says Walker. “It’s just that this is the kind of music I love, the kind of music that makes me happiest. I’ve been singing this way all my life.”
Backed by some of Music City’s greatest acoustic players, under the direction of producer, singer, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Carl Jackson, Walker turns in one breath-taking performance after another on what is easily the finest country-bluegrass disc debut of the year. The message song “A Little Change,” alone, is enough to alert you that you’re in the presence of a master vocalist. The twin-fiddle waltz “He Carried Her Memory” is utterly heartbreaking, while the yearning “Lost At Sea,” the classic-sounding weeper “Love’s Tombstone,” the bluegrass rampage “I Shoulda Took That Train,” and the moving gospel outing “We Know Where He Is” are so assured, so emotionally complex and beautifully phrased, that they sound as if they come from a seasoned veteran rather than a newcomer.
“He really is one amazing singer,” says producer Jackson, who has worked with everyone from Emmylou Harris to Glen Campbell. The GrammyTM award-winning Jackson’s resume includes sessions with Ricky Skaggs, Jim & Jesse, Garth Brooks, Vince Gill and many other greats. But he reserves extra praise for this new stylist. “Bradley is a special person, as well as a talent,” Jackson continues.
“He is an inspiration to all of us,” adds Rounder Records co-founder Ken Irwin. The fact that Bradley Walker drove alone from his hometown of Athens, Alabama to Nashville for these recording sessions is itself a wonder. He was born with Muscular Dystrophy, and has been in a wheelchair his entire life. But this young man is as fiercely independent as he is musically gifted. He built his own home in Alabama, designing it for maximum mobility and comfort. He is also completely at ease in his customized van, and has been working a day job ever since his high-school graduation, in addition to singing and traveling to festivals regularly. “My whole outlook on life is that if you’re able to get out and work, then do it,” says Walker. “My parents always encouraged me to be able to do things on my own. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it hadn’t been for them.”
That’s true in more ways than one. Parents Tom Walker and Sherl Putman both loved music deeply. The radio played constantly at home and they always had plenty of records around. Tom sometimes sang, and Sherl once worked in a record shop. Their son was born in 1978, and was singing not long afterward. When he was 3 years old, his folks took him to a local Oak Ridge Boys concert. Backstage, the tot sang “Elvira” to the quartet, beginning a friendship that lasts to this day. “Everyone in town knew that I sang, even as a very young child,” Walker recalls. “When I was 4 years old I went on stage for the first time. From the age of about 7 or 8 onwards, I would sing in talent contests, in dance halls, at churches, just anywhere.”
Trips to Nashville were common. When he was 10, his family brought him to the Oak Ridge Boys’ fan club party. This time, he sang “Elvira” with the quartet. The group was so impressed that the following year he was invited to appear on the national cable show Nashville Now with the Oaks. “We did that Nashville Now show in March of 1989, and the folks at the Muscular Dystrophy Association somehow caught wind of that appearance. They contacted us and wanted to know if we could recreate what we had done on the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon that September in Las Vegas. The following year, MDA sent a camera crew to my home, spent three days with us, filmed my story and aired a Biography-type profile on the Telethon.”
All the while, his personal musical outlook was growing. “I started out playing dance halls not long after I graduated from high school in 1996. One of the guys in the band, Ray Edwards, played lead and steel guitar in our country band, but would also play the five-string banjo on a couple of tunes each night. He knew I loved his banjo playing, so when we’d leave on Saturday night, he’d take me out to his truck and play me some bluegrass. Aside from the first generation stuff – Flatt & Scruggs and Bill Monroe, mostly – the first ‘newer’ band I heard was J.D. Crowe & the New South, their classic 1975 recording. Then it was Lou Reid, Terry Baucom and Carolina. Ray would introduce me to this music, and I’d go home and listen to it all week. He later turned me into a big fan of Jimmy Martin’s music as well. That was a time when country music was really starting to change and to move away from traditional sounds, and I fell in love with bluegrass.”
Walker and Edwards formed the Trinity Mountain Boys with brothers Tim, Scotty, and Kirk Terry, the nephews of fiddler Gordon Terry. The band debuted at a bluegrass festival staged in Pulaski, Tennessee in 1998. “We were just what they called ‘Weekend Warriors.’,” he says. “We did it just for the love of the music, and if we could make enough money to cover gas and expenses, well so much the better.” Former Sawyer Brown member Bobby Randall spotted him at a bluegrass festival and asked him to come to Nashville to sing song demos. This was Walker’s introduction to the recording studio. In 1999, The Trinity Mountain Boys self-produced their album Breaking New Ground. The bluegrass community embraced the young performer, and Walker was soon traveling farther and farther from home to be near the music he loved.
The Atlanta-based bluegrass group Lost Horizon invited Bradley Walker to become its lead singer in 2001, so he began commuting to Georgia for rehearsals. The group took second place at the SPBGMA convention in Nashville that year, and then Lost Horizon was invited to Los Angeles to appear on the Jerry Lewis Telethon. Walker believes his performance of “Big Spike Hammer” was the first time bluegrass music was presented on the long-running annual telecast.
His circle of musical friends widened, and Bradley could soon be seen sharing the stage with bands like IIIrd Tyme Out, Larry Cordle & Lonesome Standard Time, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, The Lonesome River Band, and other bluegrass headliners. In 2002, the members of IIIrd Tyme Out invited him to appear with them at the Grand Ole Opry. After he motored his wheelchair out to center stage, Walker took his foot off its pedal to rub it on the legendary circle of wood from the Ryman Auditorium. Then he sang the Jimmy Martin classic “Drink Up and Go Home” and drew a standing ovation. He has since been on the Opry several more times as the guest of Alecia Nugent and stars such as Vince Gill and Mark Wills.
“My whole family has always been very encouraging, wanting me to follow my dreams and go after it, but with a realistic side, too.” In 2002, Walker went to work at the Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant in northern Alabama. He is a material analyst there, supporting warehouse inventory and purchasing. But music is never far from his thoughts. He was honored in September 2005 when Bluegrass Unlimited magazine published a Bradley Walker feature story, headlining him as “The Next Great Voice of Bluegrass Music.” The Nashville Scene once hailed him as “the best singer in bluegrass today not yet signed to a record deal.” That would soon change.
Bradley Walker came to many listeners’ attention via “When It Comes Down to Us,” a duet with Alecia Nugent that appeared on her 2006 Rounder Records CD A Little Girl…A Big Four Lane. Next, his rendition of “Sugar Coated Love” was included on the all-star compilation Celebration of Life: Musicians Against Childhood Cancer, a double CD benefiting St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital. Now, at last, we have a sublime solo CD to savor. “I guess the caliber of people I am working with is just starting to hit me,” Walker reflects. “I had no idea that anything like this record deal would ever come along, and being able to work with Carl Jackson is a huge honor. I feel very blessed to have made so many friends through bluegrass music.”
By Robert K. Oermann